‘Press freedom is a proxy for public freedom’: Media bosses call for law reform at Press Club event

Presenting an unprecedented united front, News Corp’s Michael Miller, Nine’s Hugh Marks and the ABC’s David Anderson spoke at the National Press Club today to call for six key areas of reform in relation to press freedom off the back of the recent Australian Federal Police (AFP) raids.

The trio gave speeches and answered questions from attending journalists relating to national security and defamation laws which they believe are hindering the media’s ability to present the public with important reporting on a variety of topics.

“Each of our media organisations observe the same journalistic principles and pursue the same overall objective: speaking the truth to the community. We have an obligation to provide valuable context and an independent fact base of information to the public. Our trust is built on getting that right,” said Anderson, who started the proceedings.

Marks, Anderson and Miller provided a united front for press freedom discussions

Anderson referenced reporting such as that of Chris Masters who exposed corruption in the Queensland government in The Moonlight State, the 2014 join investigation between Four Corners and Fairfax which revealed reprehensible banking practices and led to the royal commission into banking, and the ABC investigation into aged care that brought on the royal commission into the sector.

“These investigations demonstrate why an unimpeded media is so important to the public. Press freedom is a proxy for public freedom,” said Anderson.

A document outlining the key areas where reform is needed was signed off on by major media organisations in Australia and supplied to the press. The Australia’s Right to Know Coalition of Media Companies are calling for six specific changes to laws and procedures to aid press freedom across the country.

Journalists need to be able to contest warrants

The first area where reform is needed is the right for journalists and media organisations to contest the application of warrants, according to the Coalition of Media Companies. This would require a new process to be put in place regarding approvals and notifications before the warrant was authorised, and a reasonable period to be provided after for the journalist/media organisation to seek legal recourse.

“We demand the right to contest any kind of search warrant on journalists or news organisations before the warrant is issued,” said Miller.

“News Corp will challenge the warrant that was used to search Annika’s home. But going to court to fight after the raid has been carried out does not address the fundamental problem. There is something wrong in the way warrants are issued in the first place.”

Both the ABC and News Corp have contested the warrants provided by the AFP, with News Corp choosing to take it to the High Court as Miller stated it was a ‘constitutional issue’. Miller also said the warrants were vague and incomplete.

More protection for whistleblowers

Secondly, public sector whistleblowers need to be adequately protected, according to the report. This requires a change in the current law.

“In 2017, Chris O’Keefe broke the story on Nine News Sydney about gross negligence at Bankstown Hospital that left one baby dead and another infant with severe brain damage after a mistake involving toxic gas,” said Nine’s Marks.

“Senior government officials knew about this disaster 10 days before Chris found out. They were sitting on it, arguing about whether to tell the public. Only one brave whistle-blower, frustrated that our authorities were paralysed by indecision, tipped off Chris. It forced the NSW government to act.”

In his address, Miller referenced the raid a decade ago on the Sunday Times newsroom in Perth which was later found to be unjustified, and journalist Michael Harvey who has a criminal record as a result of refusing to give up sources.

The companies involved in Australia’s Right to Know

Greater freedom for whistleblowers would lessen the pressure on journalists and also encourage a more honest dialogue about issues facing the public sector.

Another big feature of the Press Club appearance was a review into which documents can be labelled as secret. The current definition of national security is too broad, argued Miller, and the current trend to mark things as secret just because it can be done isn’t appropriate.

Anderson said a culture of openness should be embraced, and that the culture to suppress everything just because it can be done needs to change.

Reforms needed in freedom of information laws

Changes are also needed regarding the freedom of information laws, and journalists should be exempt from national security laws that have come into place over the past seven years, argued the panel.

Marks compared the current state of press freedom to the analogy of a boiled frog – new laws have crept in over time which haven’t been properly analysed and considered, which has created the current environment.

“Monash University associate professor Johan Lidberg has identified 64 new laws and amendments relating to Australia’s national security since the September 11 terror attacks, believed to be an international record,” said Anderson.

Speaking to the ABC after the Press Club event, Dr Denis Muller of the University of Melbourne said national security, information security, meta data and defamation laws would all need to be addressed in order for journalists to do their jobs properly and without prosecution.

Muller said this had come about thanks to a conservative government, but also Australia’s position as a conservative country. Referencing the Five Eyes alliance, Muller said Australia was the most conservative of the countries, and that this is reflected by our laws which hamper press freedom.

The impact of Dylan Voller and defamation laws

The final area of reform requested is around defamation law. When asked about how the recent ruling in the Dylan Voller defamation case and whether this is a concern for publications, Miller referenced inconsistencies on a state-by-state basis which showcase concerning gaps in the law. Marks mentioned the laws in the UK whereby publications are only liable for their own comments on social media, not those made by consumers.

The conversation steered towards what this means in a landscape where journalists are struggling with their work being reproduced elsewhere across the internet without approval. Miller said the ACCC’s current digital platforms enquiry is important because in the world of digital there’s a clear monopoly on search and social which isn’t allowed in the media, but both Facebook and Google are publishing content.

Dylan Voller on an episode of ABC’s Q&A

When asked if Facebook and Google should be considered publishers and therefore held to the same laws as media outlets, Marks responded with, “yes and yes”.

Katharine Murphy, political editor for Guardian Australia, called out the panel for ignoring the national security laws and reforms as they were passed, and for previously saying Australia was ‘soft on national security’. Marks acknowledged that this was fair criticism, but said that the fact the media is able to show a united front now suggests that it’s time for change and reform.

“Denigrating each other isn’t healthy,” said Miller. In a thinly veiled swipe at big tech companies and international titles well known for copying work, he called out companies for reusing content and not giving back to the media industry, saying that behaviour like this would only further hurt trust in the industry but also amplify the impact of defamation rulings.

Industry support

Since the Press Club event, journalist union MEAA has come out in support of the law and reform requests.

“The reality is that legislative creep over a number of years has restricted the public’s right to know, criminalised journalism, and left whistleblowers exposed without adequate protection,” said MEAA chief executive Paul Murphy.

“If action is not taken now to reverse the worst of these laws, then our democracy itself is at risk,” said the federal president of MEAA’s Media section, Marcus Strom.

“We call on the government and opposition to work together to provide protections for press freedom in the public interest.”

The Press Club panel ended with the conclusion that it’s the media’s job to make press freedom something that the public cares about as much as free speech. Referencing the recent battles between Israel Folau, Rugby Australia and Go Fund Me, the panel said it’s time the media put the emphasis on how press freedom will benefit the public and drum up support from across the nation.

“Prime Minister Morrison has said that if there is evidence that there is a need for improvement to press freedom laws then he is ‘open to it’,” said Miller.

“Prime Minister, the evidence is in.”


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